Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Closed 365 Days A Year

So it's amazing what you can find when you are looking for a skeevy country and western bar. Yes - Sunday afternoon, en route home from the mountains, Marty and I made 2 detours.

The first, was a detour into Hickory where we stopped at Circus Hall of Cream for what may be the best milkshake ever (it's the sort of milkshake that you can only have a few sips at a time, and then you need to wait a minute so that more of the ice cream will melt so you can get it up through the straw).

The second detour was onto Route 10 where we decided to head to check out the Silver Bullet. Not that it's open on a Sunday afternoon. But Marty and I both are intrigued with checking it out (I am strictly interested for the purposes of this blog) and so west on Route 10 we headed.

While heading that way my eye caught a sign that said "Willow Creek Inn. Fine Dining." with an arrow so after checking out the Bullet (essentially a small, decript shack topped by a woman riding a bullet (classy) and attached to some sort of massive large-scale room to accommodate the masses), we took yet a third detour because honestly - when you see a sign advertising fine dining in Lincoln County, you check it out.

After a few miles of driving on windy country road with not much else but pastures, we thought we had missed it or perhaps I had mis-read the sign. We had given up, but then we saw another sign with another arrow so we turned from one country road to another and eventually, we came upon a little yellow house called the Willow Creek Inn. It was closed, but I walked along a stone path lined with Malibu lights and pressed my nose up against the door and looked into what appeared to be a charming restaurant.

When we got home, a quick Yahoo search yielded a website which painted a picture of a charming, off-the-beaten path venue in Vale, NC (so that's where we were) with plenty of space for weddings and banquets. It had been in business since 1994 which I took as a good sign. The website also said "menu changes daily" so there was no way to check that type of food the chef was serving up.

Nonetheless, I called Monday morning to make a reservation.

We hit our first problem when I asked for a table at 8pm. I was told that 8pm was too late. Given the fact that I am generally not home til 7, we comprised on 7:30.

The next thing that threw me was when the man on the other end of the phone asked if we ate steak. Well, of course, but did I have to choose Monday at 10 a.m. what I was going to eat on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.? Was there not a menu? I was told there was no menu so I guess it was steak.

Wednesday evening Marty and I made the drive to Vale. There were few cars on the road and when we turned off the main road to begin the windy trek to Willow Creek Inn, we saw no cars. All there was to see was pasture after pasture, acre after acre of corn and the occasional field of cows. Houses were scattered and the whole scene felt very...isolated. Marty joked that we were heading literally to the middle of nowhere and wondered if we should be concerned.

We were pleased to see 2 other cars when we pulled up to the little yellow house although Marty suspected they belonged to staff. He was part right.

We were greeted at the door by Mansour Zand - the chef proprietor of Willow Creek Inn. He was in his chef whites and he led us to a delightful table for two in a beautiful red dining room. Another couple were dining nearby which made us fell better. When we were seated he offered us a choice of red or white wine. Marty asked if there was wine list. There was none so knowing we were having steak, we both opted for red. Mr. Zand came back with a decanter of Shiraz and filled our glasses.

And with the steak issue having been addressed 2 days ago, there was no need to order.

A fresh salad soon made an appearance. Simple but divine - with many of the ingredients, including a wonderful, juicy tomato, coming from Mr. Zand's garden.

The steak appeared next. Pan seared ribeye simply seasoned with salt and pepper, the steak was beautifully cooked and was without question the best steak we have had since moving to NC. It was accompanied by some grilled vegetables, a delicious pile of eggplant that spoke to Mr. Zand's Middle Eastern heritage (he is of French-Persian descent), and a rice dish that was so incredible it puts all other rice dishes to shame. I don't know what was in it but it was buttery and rich and smoky and was utterly delicious.

As we heaped our praises on the chef after such a delicious meal, he was charmingly unassuming, assuring us that he was not THAT talented. We contended otherwise.

After our empty plates were cleared, Mr. Zand asked if we liked chocolate. Of course! Soon we were looking at 2 slices of chocolate layer plate garnished with the most gorgeous fresh figs. Now I admit - I am not a cake girl. I find most cakes to be dry, crumbly and/or cloyingly sweet. Mr. Zand's cake (which he bakes himself)is rich, moist, and deeply chocolate. Heaven!

He also offered us Turkish Coffee but seeing as I nearly had a heart attack last week when the woman at Caribou Coffee gave me caffeinated instead of the decaf I had ordered, I declined.

After dinner, Mr. Zand sat down and chatted with us. We bombarded him with questions about the restaurant, how he ended up in Vale and the lack of menus.

As it turns out, Mr. Zand moved here in the late 1980s after visiting a friend and falling in love with the property. He opened the restaurant in 1994 and has never had a menu. He gets to know his customers and tailors each meal to their likes. In fact, the restaurant requires membership (which I didn't quite get) and Willow Creek Inn now boasts 2500 members (although not surprisingly, less than 5 are from Lincolnton).

He will host group nights say, Artist Night, which allows him to bring together say a group of artists who can enjoy a home cooked meal and share in their common interests.

He also hosts a well-known Native American night that involves a buffalo on a spit and a large bonfire among other things.

There is no doubt that Willow Creek Inn attracts a diverse mix of people. And Mr. Zand, who was discreet enough not to drop names, did tell us about the time a group of senior members of the U.S. government came to dine. The Secret Service came in, removed all of the furniture, and then re-outfitted the restaurant with their own furniture for security reasons. The politicians skipped the isolated, winding country roads and instead landed on Mr. Zand's farm in helicopters.

If it feels like you are eating in someone's home, it's because you are. Willow Creek Inn is everything to Mr. Zand. His home. His livelihood. His passion.

He jokes that he is closed 365 days a year...unless you call. Then he will open up his home - and his heart - and let you in.

All in all, it was a special evening and left Marty and I feeling overjoyed at our discovery.

And because I was so enamored of the rice, Mr. Zand has invited us back tonight to dine with him in his kitchen. He has promised to make us a rice dish that will blow us away. I can't wait.

p.s. When you come down to visit, remember to ask us to bring you to The Willow Creek Inn. It will blow YOU away.

Check it out: